Chip Long was a post-spring practice replacement for the departed Greg Nord as tight end/fullback coach for the Illinois football team. It was his first year as an assistant coach, and he found only inexperienced youngsters waiting for him at his positions.
Fortunately, true freshmen Jay Prosch and Evan Wilson started every game at fullback and tight end respectively, and they became accomplished blockers, helping Mikel Leshoure break the single season rushing record. They didn't contribute much in the passing game, but their talents proved necessary and beneficial.
There was only so much they could learn in one fall camp prior to the season, so the 15 extra practices preparing for the Texas Bowl were extremely important to them according to Long.
"It was great. We had the bowl practices. Especially when you coach a group of young kids, two young freshmen included, those extra practices were huge. Just to see them grow and get better at little things you're not really able to teach early in the year because you work so much on scheme and plays. You really saw the benefit of it in the bowl game."
Long expanded on ways the freshmen benefitted from the extra time after the regular season.
"It helped them get healthy once again. It's a hard deal for a true freshman to come in. You've got school and football, you kind of hit a plateau. The thing I was excited about was they really didn't hit a wall. They had some tough days, but they didn't just go in the jar.
"So having the equivalent of spring ball for the bowl practices was like having spring ball because the first few practices you go back to the basics. That helped a lot. You saw a huge difference on things like footwork, not false-stepping each time. Them being able to rep it, rep it, rep it was a great deal for them and for the entire offense."
Prosch proved to be quite a find at fullback. The muscular 250 pounder opened big holes for Leshoure and the other running backs. Does he have the ability to add pass receiving and maybe a run or two to his responsibilities?
"He does, and that's something we're gonna try this spring with him. He'd really never played offense. His sophomore year in high school he might have been an offensive tackle, so he was really new to the offense, new to the position. He was able to come through to the end of the year.
"He gives you a lot of ideas on different ways to use him. We'll also probably use him a little bit at tight end and running back. He's such a bright kid that he can be a very versatile player for us. And he's a great football player. You want to have those guys on the field.
"He has areas he needs to improve on. Just understanding the game, how it works, how to read your keys better. It will slow down for him. There's no question he'll have a lot more different roles this spring."
Are there any other prospects ready to provide depth behind Prosch?"
"His backup is Chris Willett. He has to get stronger and a little more flexible. Understand the offense and control his emotions, build his confidence. That will come with a good year in the weight room. There's no question he could help us in a role.
"And then when Zach Becker gets healthy and comes back, he'll be able to do both. I think he will be healthy. We're taking it really slow. He had a good surgery where they put in a thicker pin. I think we're going about it the right way.
"With this being his last year, he'll find a way to be healthy. I want him to because he's such a great person. He could have done it just walking to class. It was such a freak deal.
"You always want to have 2-3 fullbacks. Three is great. You always want to be able to rotate them in spring ball, even in fall camp when they're not getting beat up, to keep them fresh."
Long was impressed with Wilson's progress, especially as a blocker. Wilson has the intelligence, tenacity and perseverence required for the tight end role. Plus, he caught 10 passes on the year for 135 yards and two touchdowns, his last catch helping the Illini defeat Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
"He got a little banged up in the Northwestern game. He banged his elbow pretty good. He went about 80 plays, just gutted it out. Didn't complain about it one time; he's a really tough kid. But you could tell it was really bothering him. He struggled in the later games.
"But in the bowl practices, he was able to get back a little more healthy. It was good to see him make that catch (in the Texas Bowl) because in practice he dropped it about twice, and I was just furious at him. But it was good to see him make that play."
Long wants Wilson to become more involved in the passing game.
"Ten catches is not nearly good enough. This offseason, they've already started route running. Seeing us come off faster, plant faster and knowing how to get open.
"You can do a little of that in fall camp, but once the season starts, you don't really have the chance to slow it down and teach them the art of getting open. It's something we're gonna really get at in the spring. We're gonna be good receivers."
Long says Wilson has the ability to be an important cog in the Illini passing attack.
"He runs well enough. His ability to sink his hips, come out of breaks and understand how to get open is his main deal. He has great hands and is very athletic. He just needs more practice at it."
When the Illini went to two tight end sets, Eddie Viliunas entered the game. The former quarterback and walkon proved a reliable blocker but never had a chance to catch a pass.
"He did a great job," Long explains. "He was really solid and executed his role real well. He needs to improve his flexibility and his hip movement, but he was a big help for us. He's a bigger guy that can help with pass protection where you could get Evan out on a route. He was a big help and accepted his role. He really did a nice job for us."
Justin Lattimore was the third tight end. He caught one pass on the year, but it was a big 33 yard touchdown. A receiver trying to bulk up to be an effective blocker, Long says he is still a work in progress but has potential.
"Justin's doing good. He's in the weight room getting after it. He's trying to change his entire mentality, which is great. It's really exciting because no question he can play. He has the athletic ability, he just has to have the confidence to go out there and perform every single day and have the energy, the attitude and body language that he wants to be a player.
"He's got to get stronger; he's just a redshirt freshman. He's getting there. But it's more mental with Justin. He has to understand that he can play down there and build the confidence to get it done. He's also a great kid. It takes time. I think he understands that, and he's working at it. It's really good to see him work in the weight room."
Overall, Long is impressed with the athletes playing his two positions. He says they have an important role to play in future Illini success.
"You couldn't ask for a better group of guys than what I've got. They work hard, they take coaching and apply it, and they all really love the game. And they're all gonna be great leaders. They're gonna be a group that wins a lot of football games."
Come fall, Long will also have a couple outstanding additions with whom to work. He talks about Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse in part two. And since he was the primary recruiter on Bandit Darrius Caldwell, he discusses him as well.